PAUL ROUSE: Hurling, like quidditch, owes much to literature

The world of sport, with its seemingly endless capacity to invent and reinvent itself, has demonstrated time and again that there is nothing permanent, nothing resistant to transition.

Members of the Ireland quidditch team which played at the European Quidditch Games in Oslo last weekend. Picture: Stefan Scheurer

Over the centuries, the evolution of different forms of organised sport has been moulded by the great forces of history, including migration, networks of trade, urbanisation, industrialisation, imperialism and colonisation, the rise of nationalism, the triumph of capitalism, globalisation, and technological change.

To this list must be added the influence of literature.

The great recent example of the influence of literature on sport is the game of Quidditch, taken from the pages of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The fictional game — played in the air by Harry Potter and other students at Hogwarts school who fly around on broomsticks — saw invented terms such as beaters, chasers, snitches and bludgers become familiar to millions of readers over the last two decades.

And now it thrives as competitive sport.

Quidditch was first developed as a sport when a student at Middlebury College in Vermont led the laying down of basic rules of play in 2005.

The rules have evolved over the past 12 years and the game is now managed by a governing body, just as in every modern sport.

The game itself involves players running around with a broom between their legs while trying to move a round ball across the pitch into a scoring area, just as in so many other ball games.

Men and women share the pitch on an equal basis and at any one time there can be no more than four players of the same gender on the field as part of a seven-person team.

As the many YouTube clips show, it demands athleticism, competitive instincts, good hand-eye coordination and basic fitness.

By 2015 — a decade after the first rules were laid down — the United States Quidditch Association had more than 200 affiliated clubs and an annual World Cup competition was being organised drawing national teams from Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The ongoing development of the sport has seen it broadcast live on cable TV and the first history of the game has been published. By 2016, there were more than 500 Quidditch clubs playing the game in 26 countries around the world.

And last weekend the European Quidditch Cup was be played in Oslo, Norway. The UK beat France in the final and Ireland were one of 16 countries represented. #

The team – which also competed last year in the Quidditch World Cup – prepared during dedicated training weekends.

It would be straightforward to mock Quidditch as something synthetic, something that isn’t really sport at all.

Except the manner in which sport is drawn from literature is something that is not at all new. Indeed, pulling ideas of sport from literature is something that changed the course of Irish sporting history: it played a crucial role in the making of modern hurling.

Up until the last months of 1882, Michael Cusack was devoted to developing the games of rugby and cricket. He had called for the establishment of cricket clubs in every parish in Ireland and founded a rugby club.

But during the winter that ended 1882 and opened 1883, he abandoned both games and became obsessed with the idea of leading a revival of the ‘ancient Irish game of hurling’.

At the heart of this transformation was the translation and publication of a cheap popular edition of Ireland’s ancient heroic literature. This literature – notably Táin Bó Cúailnge and Tóraíocht Diarmuid agus Gráinne, but also other tales – included numerous references to hurling.

We know from his journalism that Cusack was reading P. W. Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances, and David Comyn’s editions of Tóruigheacht Dhiarmuda agus Ghráinne, Laoidh Oisin ar Tír na nÓg, and Mac Ghníomhartha Fhinn.

Perhaps most importantly he read Standish O’Grady’s Cuculain: An Epic which was published in 1882.

In O’Grady’s hands, Cu Chulainn was recast as a hero for the 1880s, his deeds recreated for a new generation, including his prowess as a hurler: Cú Chulainn played a match in which “the clash of the metal hurles [sic] resounded in the evening air” and those who watched were awed into silence.

Only the very best hurlers attempted to compete with him as he rushed backwards and forwards “urging the ball in any direction that he pleased, as if in mockery”.

In a glorious taste of what was to come following the revival of hurling by the GAA, the defeated boys started “a furious fight” with Cú Chulainn.

Inevitably, of course, Cú Chulainn won the fight as easily as he had the match: “With his little hurle [sic] grasped, like a war-mace, in both hands, he laid about him on every side, and the boys were tumbling fast. He sprang at tall youths like a hound at a stag’s throat. He rushed through crowds of his enemies like a hawk through a flock of birds.”

Inspired by this mythology, from early 1883 Michael Cusack began to write of hurling as an act of freedom, as a game which was inherited from the heroes of Irish history which a new generation was now duty-bound to revive.

Of course, the difference between Quidditch and hurling was that the game revived by Cusack had a tradition that extended back decades.

That tradition had come under immense pressure in the aftermath of the Great Famine. In many areas the game was no longer played, but the echoes of the past that ran through Ireland’s literature inspired its remaking in the modern way.

This was not inevitable. For example, a stick-and-ball game called knattleikr is prominent in the Icelandic medieval sagas.

It can be found, for example, in Egils saga, Gísla saga, Grettis saga, and Eyrbyggja saga, where there are parallels with the presence of hurling in Ireland’s heroic literature.

By contrast with hurling, however, attempts at a modern revival of Knattleikr have enjoyed no success.

The Icelandic scholar Björn Bjarnason attempted to reconstruct knattleikr using the sagas and in a 1908 book, he imagined knattleikr as a game, played on a marked-out field, with opposing players matched together in pairs. The game was never made.

At least, not fully. Just as with Quidditch a group of Viking re-enactment enthusiasts attempted to make a modern sport out of Knattleikr about a decade ago.

Soon afterwards there was a small-scale intercollegiate competition in New England in 2007, but that appears to have been the height of the revival.

Perhaps the answer might lie in a Viking invasion of this weekend’s Quidditch competition. Any plunder of the commercial behemoth that is the Harry Potter franchise could hardly be condemned.



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